FeatureWriter’s Books of Distinction


Books of Distinction
Jack Chalker
By T. G. Browning

Last month’s Trivia Question: As any experienced reader is aware, movies are made from novels all the time, with highly variable results, both in quality of the movie itself and faithfulness to the original book. The best, recent examples of success in movie adaptation would be The Lord of the Ring series. However, there was one wildly popular movie of the 60’s where the novel was written after the movie, partly to make up for the ambiguity of the movie itself. [Warning – I’m biased. I loath the movie and the book in question]. What movie/book am I talking about? Hint: Think Sri Lanka. The answer will be next time, of course.

* * *

The novel was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hated it. Loathed it. Found it to be possibly the biggest piece of junk that I could recall from a science fiction writer that I ever encountered.

The writer was Arthur C. Clarke and I still haven’t forgiven him entirely. 2010: The Year We Make Contact was a much better effort to my way of thinking, though there are those who have violent disagreement with that.

My objection was simple and two-fold. It was entirely too artsy for my taste and way over the edge when it came for artsy-murky. No substantive questions were answered. There were questions that never got even close to an answer. And that crap with the astronaut in the monolith, his age shifting around, and especially the space-fetus made me want to hurl. Ghack.

No matter. Arthur C. Clark was a giant in the field, and especially so when one considers The Sands of Mars and other books. With sadness I report that he died in the middle of March and the world is a more humdrum place because of it.

* * *

This issue I’m going to cover a man who was a font of original ideas, a fine writer, an expert on the field, a great collector, and a fine, patient human being. I speak of the late Jack Chalker.

I did not know Jack personally. Would that I had. But I had been in fairly regular contact via e-mail for at least fifteen years, ever since I dropped him a note regarding his wonderful series of the Well World. That was on the old Delphi service and I’m damn glad I did – and that he replied . He answered immediately. He was kind, thoughtful, urbane, and patient with a fan. I can’t tell you how much that meant to an aspiring writer of no note.

His imagination was profound. Eclectic. Amazing. And he had a great gift that is hauntingly and sadly lacking in the literary/science fiction world.

He morphed fantasy into science fiction.

Think about it. I cannot come up with the name of anybody else who could do that. Take the Soul Rider series, or perhaps the Four Lords of the Diamond. Especially think of the Well-World series. They reeked of fantasy but were clearly science fiction.

Who else can you name that manages that?

Not Larry Niven. Not Asimov or Ellison, or Tim Powers or even that inspired hack, Robert Silverberg. No one else.

If I had one objection to his work, it was that he treated his heroines (which predominate in his writing) horribly. He had reasons for doing so, I grant, due to the story lines but it was kind of hard to take after awhile. No matter.

The Well-World series is probably his best known and loved series – deservedly so to my mind – and consider the basic plot idea. The universe is maintained by a vast computer made by the Markovians, billions of years ago. The secret is rediscovered. And, it turns out, there is a few billion-year-old Markovian who is caretaker to the universe and the Well of Souls computer. Incidentally, his name is Nathan Brazil and he’s Jewish. He claims to be God, as well.

Lord, that’s a huge concept. Original. And immensely difficult to work with, if you ask me. Chalker did so.

He also was one of the three best known and most widely respected historians of science fiction and fantasy. Indeed, his e-Book with Mark Owings, is the definitive text for any collector. If you can scare up a copy, no matter what shape, DO!!!

I can only think of one other science fiction writer that delved into the question of whether or not intelligent life could arise from a viral organism – only Hal Clement (see Needle) tried before Chalker and Chalker used it to great effect in the final volume of the original Well World series.

Chalker thought big. The Four Lords of the Diamond series proposed that worlds could be sentient and communicate via an extensive rethinking of the New Age Gaia concept.

Probably his most fantastic science fiction series was the Soul Rider, a fairly bizarre world made up of enclaves (Anchors) in a polymorphic world that changed on a whim. The story line is a bit convoluted to go into here, but consider the idea of will, what it can do and can’t do, and what one strong willed person is able to accomplish via their own willpower. Such people populate this one particular world and have immense, seemingly magical powers, but the power is always based on science. Indeed, if anyone took Arthur C. Clarke’s quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” to heart, it was Jack Chalker and he showed how it could be so, again and again and again.

And he did it with no mysticism. That’s astonishing in a number of ways, I think, if for no other reason than the fact that all people seem to be mystically inclined. We like to think magically. Jack Chalker turned it into science and technology, in ways totally original. He was an advocate of reason and science working to change how people think about the real world.

I won’t go into discussing the collection of Jack Chalker books because it just doesn’t seem right to me. The man knew the science fiction field better than anyone; he kept track of all of the different specialty publishers and (with Owings) put out the definitive bibliography of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and supernatural genres. Assigning any particular value to one of his books seems, oh hell, presumptuous to me. So I won’t.

But I will give you a good place to start looking at his books:

And I’ll finish up with an interesting bit of trivia: Chalker is not buried in one place. He was cremated and some of his ashes were spread on the grave of another writer. Which writer was it? Answer of course, will be next time.

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